December 25, 2017
December 25, 2017

Beginning Another New Year

We could begin 2018 by glancing back over 2017—so we shall.

The “big” news in Gulf of Mexico Fisheries is that Federal regulations governing many offshore species are still confused, muddled, and a bit ridiculous. Red snappers are so numerous that they are literally eating some other species—such as triggerfish—into unnaturally low population levels.

Those charter boat captains who remain in business report that it has become difficult to fish for species such as king mackerel in many spots because the baits are taken instead by red snappers. Of course, this would not be a bad thing, except that snapper limits are very much less than generous, and the season in which keeping them is allowed is more often closed than open.

Compounding this problem is that snappers do not function well as a “catch-and-release” sport species. This means that when keeping snappers is prohibited, releasing them to die when they are caught as by product of seeking other species, is NOT an effective method of fishery management.

Federal regulations may be building towards addressing this problem, however. The original three-day red snapper “season” in waters of the Gulf under federal control was a step toward not having undersized snapper that were unlikely to survive being released.

I have been in this game long enough to remember the summer that federal fisheries gurus decided an 18-minimum length for snappers would reduce the recreational catch. It did that fairly well, as an 18-inch snapper is a pretty good fish, and smaller snappers are much more likely to be caught. However, that was also the summer the surface of the Gulf was littered with dead snappers under 18 inches that had been released by fishermen.

It seems there is no real way to only target snappers of a certain size—or above a certain size. Dead snappers are removed from the fishery just as completely whether they go home with a fisherman to feed his family or get eaten by “flipper” after they are released.

The only way to completely protect red snappers is to prohibit ANY fishing in waters where they might be found. (Yes, they will even hit a trolled lure at times!) NOAA fisheries seems to be working on this, by enacting ever tighter seasons and bag limits on other species, which in practice, removes the incentive to fish offshore at all.

Yeah, that should do it.

In my humble opinion, at the heart of the problem is that NOAA Fisheries/NMFS still has no real catch data on recreational red snapper catches. Dockside “intercepts” are expensive and of limited actual value, and telephone surveys are next to useless.

Instead, they cling to “estimates”, which are barely more than guesses. Somehow, these estimates always show that recreational fishermen vastly over-catch their quota, year after year.

We in the fishing community fought this same battle with king mackerel several years ago. When the quota for a species is “estimated” to have been reached, the fishery might be closed early More commonly, since the data is never presented until after the fact, the recreational quota for the following year will be reduced to “pay back” the excess fish deemed to have been caught.

They have also been prone to play games with the size of fish taken, claiming that the average snapper caught has greatly increased in size and weight, thus filling the quota—which is measured in pounds, not numbers of fish—sooner.

What the facts, as taken from observations of fishermen on the water and verified by some of the most respected fisheries “experts,” actually show is that there may well be more red snappers in the Gulf right now than at any time in recorded history.

Some credit for this has to be given to the extreme regulations. However, recreational fishermen should share some of the credit for suffering through those regulations, and for the most part obeying them.

I have no way of knowing whether high ranking employees of NOAA Fisheries/NMFS have seen their annual compensation increase due to the “success” of the red snapper management program. I do know that recreational fishermen have not been rewarded for their part in that success.

The fisheries programs of the various Gulf States have been much more realistic and successful than those of the federal government. I completely support the move to turn all red snapper management over to the states, instead of blackmailing them by reducing Federal quotas to “punish” state waters fishermen for obeying the laws set by their states for red snappers in state waters. Snappers are not a highly migratory species, and what lives in state water, normally stays in state waters.



Location: Deep water spots will hold more fish in winter. This includes channels in bays and between bays and the Gulf, coastal rivers, and the channel side of jetties, as well as deeper water reached by beachfront piers and rock groins 

Species: Trout, reds, flounder and various pan fish can all be taken in the right spot, at the right time.

Bait: Both live and dead bait can be effective, also lures. Work lures slowly, and be patient with natural baits. Fish all of them slowly.

Best Time: Tides and currents are general “weaker”, but perhaps even more important to success than in warmer months.


Email Mike Holmes at [email protected]

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